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  • On the Ground
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Rocky Mountain Biological Lab researcher David Inouye studies a band taken from a 34-year old Aspen sunflower in a plot he has been monitoring in Gothic, Colorado on July 14, 2023. Many fields of Aspen sunflowers bloomed so unusually early they were killed by frost. Inouye has been doing research in the mountains and meadows surrounding Gothic for 53 years. His primary area of study is flowers and insects. More recently the data that he has collected is being used to study the impact of climate change. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

David Inouye has been conducting research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory for 53 summers. His son, Brian Inouye, grew up spending summers playing with friends and helping researchers at the field station where his dad worked, then left for the tropics to establish his own career. Nora Underwood, now married to Brian, first came to the field station as a reluctant undergraduate from New York, then was bowled over and captivated by the natural beauty.

Drawn along different but overlapping paths, the three family members now work together at the field station every day during summers. They are also co-authors on a paper reporting on dramatic insect declines in the pristine mountain environment. Their collaboration speaks to the alluring natural beauty of the setting, a warm and intellectually stimulating environment, and the challenge of separating the signal from the noise in ecological research.

The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, or RMBL, was founded in 1928, when Western Colorado College biology professor John Johnson set up a field station in the ruins of the abandoned mining town Gothic, 9,500 feet above sea level in the Elk Mountains outside of Crested Butte. Today, it draws close to 200 researchers, students and educators every summer to study the fauna and flora of the subalpine environment. Many bring their families.

David Inouye first came to RMBL in 1971 after graduating from Swarthmore College. Completely captivated, he did his Ph.D. research there on hummingbirds. In the decades since, he has observed, measured, weighed and counted butterflies, bees, flies, wildflowers and more. He is the longest-tenured researcher at the station.

“I always look forward to getting back to Gothic,” said Inouye, who recently retired as a professor of zoology at the University of Maryland. “The first view of Gothic Mountain, as you drive north from Gunnison, is always a special occasion. It’s always beautiful and there’s always the anticipation of seeing what will be new and different about the coming summer.”

Three people stand in a meadow surrounded by blooming flowers
Scientists Brian Inouye, left, his wife Nora Inouye and Brian’s father, David, outside the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab near Gothic on July 23. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

David’s son, Brian, grew up spending summers at the field station where he developed close friendships with other researchers’ children. Together, they explored the streams, peaks and snowfields of the surrounding country. David did not rope his son into his own research efforts, but Brian did help others with the work on butterflies, marmots, salamanders and more.

As an undergraduate at Vassar College, Underwood was more interested in modern dance than science. Then a couple of biology classes piqued her interest. A professor suggested she come to RMBL for the summer, but she passed on the opportunity. She did come the next year and “had a kind of religious experience. … It was just so beautiful.”

In the hinterlands of Colorado, Underwood had to trade modern dance for Friday-night folk dancing taught by David’s wife, Bonnie, at the station dining hall. There, she met Brian with whom she took many “lovely walks after dancing.”

During the days that summer, Underwood observed bees near Schofield Pass. In the evenings, she enjoyed stimulating conversations in the dining hall with smart people doing interesting work. By the end of the summer, she had a revelation.

“I could get paid to do this!” She completed her biology degree at Vassar, then she and Brian earned Ph.D.s in zoology and ecology at Duke University. They followed that with faculty positions at Florida State University.


They both loved working at the field station and longed to return. But Brian felt he had to stay away from RMBL for a few years to establish his own identity beyond being the little kid people remembered running around the lab. After welcoming their daughter and achieving tenure, they returned to RMBL during the summers.

Once there, they took up the torch that David had carried for so many decades, finding grants for long-term research in a field dominated by 2- and 5-year grants. They applied for and earned a 10-year National Science Foundation grant to continue research on the timing and interactions of plants and animals in a changing environment. With David’s enthusiastic support, the research continues to build on his decades of observations.

“I feel really lucky stepping into a situation with decades of data as a rich foundation,” Brian said.

A woman sits on a desk in a collection room containing data collected over many generations
Nora Underwood sits in a collection room at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. The room contains boxes, folders and files of research done at the RMBL lab over many decades. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In addition to working together during the day, the family members eat dinners together several nights a week. Underwood says that the only strain caused by mixing family and work arises when they must decide how to apportion their limited funds to all the projects they want to pursue. “We have a lot of balls up in the air.”

On a recent morning, David, Brian and Underwood gathered in a cluttered room where three-ring binders and boxes of insect specimens line the walls. With magnifying glasses on his head, Brian counted and weighed insects as David leafed through decades-old data he had collected as a young man. Underwood explained their work.

“Everybody up here is outside looking at stuff,” she said. It is crucial to document changes that can slip by unnoticed if somebody is not watching. “We just have to keep writing stuff down.”

“Look, a bombyliid,” said Brian as he held up a fly that masquerades as a bee to scare off predators. A few minutes later, he showed off a tiny bee about one-eighth of an inch long, then a beautiful fuzzy fly. After an hour or so, Brian had counted and weighed 318 insects, about half as many as his father typically would find in the 1980s. After that, David went to check on plants he had followed for more than 20 years, and Brian and Underwood headed off to count how many of the lupine blossoms in a research plot had become seed pods.

A man holds a sample of a plant he has been monitoring
Rocky Mountain Biological Lab researcher David Inouye studies a band taken from a 34-year old Aspen sunflower in a plot he has been monitoring. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

After more than three decades’ experience in journalism, science writing, editing, book publishing, corporate communications and video production, William is happy to be freelancing once again about science, skiing or any good story.
Twitter: @Allstetter